Why, as a Palestinian American journalist, I had to leave the news industry

What I experienced before October 7 and what I’ve seen after has made me lose hope US media can change.

An illustration showing a woman sitting on the floor in front of a computer appearing sad and in despair
[Jawaher Al Naimi]

I was listening to a lecture at my local mosque when it suddenly felt like the imam was speaking directly to me. He was interpreting a few verses from the Quran. As he approached the sixth verse in the chapter and began to explain its meaning, my heart began to beat fast.

“O believers, if an evildoer brings you any news, verify it so you do not harm people unknowingly, becoming regretful for what you have done,” he translated.

I felt validated. God is telling us to fact-check. To avoid spreading rumours or misinformation. To question the source of information and to minimise harm. This was a command that I was following on an almost daily basis. I struggled to see how I was making a difference sometimes as a journalist, but in that moment, my faith reassured me that my efforts, no matter how small, were seen and rewarded by God Himself.

I had read the Quran a few times in Arabic, but I was delving into the English translation for the first time. I was getting closer to my religion and God as I grew further away from my career. I constantly reminded myself that my purpose in journalism is to share factual and important information and to put my best work forward. I hoped one day I would be a correspondent for a US media outlet and get sent to the Middle East to report instead of one of the white journalists I usually saw on television.

This was a lofty goal for someone who grew up in Dearborn, Michigan, the city with one of the largest Arab populations in the United States. Despite being surrounded by people like me, I felt isolated when I chose to study journalism, as the majority of my peers had gone into engineering and medicine.

I lived in a city where there was a deep mistrust of the news media because of years of inaccurate or faulty coverage of the Middle East and Muslim and Arab communities in the US. Most of the time, we would only see ourselves in the news portrayed in a negative light or accused of “terrorism”. The Arab families I grew up with did not tune into local news because the news did not serve them.

Most families moved to Dearborn to be near fresh pita and packed mosques, where you can take your time learning English because you can get by with just your mother tongue. My dad moved our family to Dearborn in 2000, and after the 9/11 attacks, it became a permanent stay. A man who lived in multiple countries and couldn’t sit still in one place, all of a sudden held his family closer and refused to move. He mentally built thick gates around the city that were rarely ever crossed.

I was only two years old, so I can’t tell you about any immediate effects of 9/11 that I experienced. But I can tell you that I grew up in a household that never travelled unless it was to Jordan and Palestine. While some families went up to Mackinac Island during the summers, I never set foot there until I was 21.

As a family, we visited the two closest Great Lakes, but never made the two-and-a-half-hour journey to Lake Michigan because it was passing through too many white Republican counties where my dad didn’t feel he could protect us against any possible hate speech or discrimination, especially since my mother and I wear hijabs.

I grew up angry at my community for being so insular, but I later understood the decisions my parents’ generation made. Their fears were partly fuelled by US media coverage of the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq and other post-9/11 policies like the demonisation of Muslims under the guise of “anti-terrorism” operations.

I wanted to become a journalist to correct the narrative. I wanted to accurately tell stories and hold people in power accountable.

I was taught in college that journalism can change policies, expose government secrets and lies and absolve the wrongfully convicted. It drew me in. I wanted to redirect that power to myself and the communities I belong to who had been vilified by the news industry and the government for decades.

I fell in love with storytelling and reported for the campus paper while studying, and interned at multiple outlets in Michigan. I even had an opportunity to spend two weeks interning at the New York Times.

My mom was sharing my stories on social media, my dad was reading my bylines and asking further reporting questions, and my brothers and sister would call me with “exclusive tips” about incidents that happened in the halls of their school. I saved hard copies of all my stories printed in newspapers.

In 2021, I landed my first full-time job after college at a local paper in Texas where I was the only Muslim and only Palestinian in the newsroom. I pumped out about 400 stories in a year on breaking news and trending topics.

Among them was one story that I hesitated to pitch, and later regretted ever writing. It was a news piece covering a local protest against an evangelical church raising money for Israel.

I took my own photos of the event, interviewed multiple protesters, most of whom were Palestinian, and included as much context as I could while staying concise. The story went through multiple editors in the newsroom before it was published. Usually, I got to look at the edits that were made, but this time I saw them after publication.

Instead of highlighting protesters’ concerns and informing readers of the conditions of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation, the article mischaracterised the demonstration as just “another protest” that happens every year at this event. Several paragraphs were cut and the headline was changed to a more attractive line that called the fundraiser for another country just an “annual event”.

The article quoted the church’s founder and the keynote speaker for the event who had called for an end to anti-Semitism, but featured none of the Palestinians I had originally interviewed.

I remember wanting to scream in my empty apartment when I saw the published piece. I felt like my voice was deleted. I felt shame as I faced direct backlash from the protest organisers who said the article lacked context and only gave space for the church’s point of view. I felt like I was part of the problem, and no longer a part of the solution.

What I took away from that experience was that I should steer clear of localising international affairs. But then a few months later, the Russia-Ukraine war started and we began publishing articles localising it.

I was assigned some of these stories: a local bar boycotting Russian vodka and a US journalist receiving treatment at a local hospital after getting injured in Ukraine. I tried to avoid bringing work troubles home, but I failed. My husband listened to my frustration and comforted me as I wept.

I saw the journalism that I wanted to be a part of and that was possible, but learned that its standards could not be applied to my people. I saw the efforts that were put into getting the facts right and centring local Ukrainian voices. I saw what was possible for others but not for the Palestinian people.

Despite my meeting with the editor-in-chief and voicing my concerns to try to create change “from the inside”, my efforts felt fruitless and exhausting. There were several moments like these, which piled up and left me deeply frustrated until I decided to quit.

My experience was no precedent. Palestinian voices rarely make it to print or the air in the US given the heavy pro-Israeli media bias. When they do, they often face censorship. Some publishers are fearful of the blowback from subscribers or advertisers because their pro-Israel sensibilities may be hurt by a pro-Palestinian perspective or an objective report about Israel. Others think the stories we want to tell are about issues that are “too complicated” and that won’t attract more viewers or clicks.

After my experience in Texas, I took up another reporting job in Michigan where I immersed myself in covering local government. I loved my new workplace, but it was asking a lot from me to stick to a profession that was too slow to listen, even when listening was one of the most valuable skills for someone practicing it.

In August, I went to Palestine to visit my relatives there and spent some time with my maternal grandfather.

He was born in 1946 in Beit Nabala, a village that was destroyed two years later during the ethnic cleansing of Palestine – what we call the Nakba – by Jewish militias as they laid the foundations of the new state of Israel.

My grandfather was exiled along with his parents to a refugee camp in the West Bank, where he lives until today.

When I was still in school, he hoped I would study law and make it to the International Court of Justice to advocate for Palestinians. He was not very excited when I chose journalism, as he didn’t understand the profession I thought I knew. He only knew that journalists in Palestine often put their lives on the line while reporting, and the West did not value their voices or even try to listen.

But I was in the West and as a young Arab-American, I was listening to journalists like Shireen Abu Akleh (may God rest her soul) and Wael Dahdouh, who reported from the occupied West Bank and Gaza. I saw Ayman Mohyeldin become an anchor for MSNBC and bring previously unheard stories to the screen. I was inspired by their bravery and their efforts. I believed the industry was changing for the better, and the world was starting to listen.

One night, towards the end of my stay, I was seated by my grandfather in his house. The TV was on at an insanely loud volume; an anchor was sharing news of protests going on in Idlib, Syria. My grandfather turned to me and inquired about the news I cover, asking me to pull up the website on his old Samsung phone. I could see how proud he was of my work as he zoomed into the English text and tried to pick out words from his limited English vocabulary.

It was at that moment when he was scrolling through my stories that I felt a deep sense of embarrassment and felt so naive for thinking one day I could make a positive difference for him and other Palestinians. I felt like I was wasting my time begging the industry to humanise people like him. Especially when he is still living in the same spot where his parents had set up a tent handed out by the United Nations some 75 years ago.

When I got back to Michigan, I had to take a break from reporting. I had tied my growth in the journalism industry to my ability to make meaningful changes in the accurate coverage of the communities I belong to. Looking ahead, I did not see a place for me in US media. It broke my heart. The same reason I became a journalist was the same reason I had to walk away from journalism.

I saw that my community in Dearborn was still suffering from misinformation and still did not trust the media or read much local or national news. Most outlets were unwilling to change and continued to neglect my community while patting themselves on the back for the few diversity hires they would make.

A week after I left the job I loved, Hamas launched an operation in southern Israel and that led to yet another brutal Israeli war on Gaza. The coverage in US media has been outrageous.

I have seen major US TV channels readily report claims by the Israeli army and government without verification. I have seen newsrooms disregard basic rules on fact-checking and credible attribution and embrace language that obfuscates and covers up Israeli crimes. I have seen outlets issue corrections weeks or months after flawed reporting, when the damage has already been done.

These disturbing practices continued even after scores of legal scholars came forward and called what is happening in Palestine a “textbook case of genocide” and a group of countries, led by South Africa, started proceedings against Israel for the charge of committing genocide at the International Court of Justice.

I feel we are back to 2001. The US media is yet again causing harm to communities that are afraid to share their stories because of one-sided, hostile coverage. It is failing again to hold to account those supporting and funding a genocidal war with our tax dollars.

Over the past three months, all I have been seeing are more reasons to stay away from journalism. A job that requires compassion, empathy and deep listening to produce impactful reporting has been hijacked by those who forget the true purpose of this profession. The news industry has neglected the basics of reporting, fact-checking and truth-seeking, repeating false and unverified claims with genocidal consequences.

The US media is asking its reporters to care less about the Palestinian people; it is asking me, a Palestinian journalist, not to care at all about the plight of my family and not to believe in their basic human rights to life, food, water, and human dignity; it is asking me to willingly dehumanise them. Journalists have been fired for sharing their indignation at the mounting number of civilians killed or for simply calling for a ceasefire to end the “hell on earth”, as the UN has called it.

I do not believe I can be valued as a journalist by a media industry that delegitimises and demonises Palestinian journalists, and allows for reporting that incites and justifies attacks against them. I do not believe this industry will truly hear me while it refuses to listen and centre Palestinian voices.

I have hope and I believe small efforts can create change, but I do not think this is possible in the news industry we have right now.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.